Soldadera: The Armored Rebozo

Installation view, Nao Bustamante, "Rebozo" (2015). | Photo: Dale Griner.

Inspired by Nao Bustamante's exhibition, Soldadera ­­-- the artist's "speculative reenactment" of women's participation on the front lines of The Mexican Revolution­­ -- Artbound is publishing articles about the exhibition's development, historical contexts engaged by this project, and writing inspired by the work. Soldadera was guest curated for the Vincent Price Art Museum by UC Riverside professor Jennifer Doyle, and is on view from May 16 ­- August 1, 2015.

On display in Nao Bustamante's "Soldadera" exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum is a rebozo made of Kevlar. The shawl -- often used by women to carry childern -- hangs on the wall like a burden and a gift. In its drape, we feel the rebozo's weight. Contextualized by the exhibition's focus on women's participation in the Mexican Revolution, we feel the heavy and often-untold history the rebozo carries. It cradles that history. Arrullando y levantandome, lulling me and waking me, I visit the rebozo and wonder if I am being asked to carry its story or if it is asking to carry me. How am I, and how are we, responsible to the story? If we could form a safe harbor by slinging it across our own shoulders and chests, whose weight, what bodies would we carry with it?

Large enough to wrap my entire body, I think about how this oversized rebozo can be used. if it is meant to cradle me, like when I was a child. If it is to arrullar, to rock me to sleep, as I was once protected by the material wrapped like a sling across one of my grandmother's shoulders.

Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.

After first seeing "Soldadera," I told my mother about many of the articles displayed in the exhibition. When I mentioned the rebozo, she told me this story of not being able to hold me in one. Maybe she tied the sling too close and didn't leave enough room for my body to be cradled. Or perhaps she left the sling too loose, too far away, from her breast. The rebozo, for my mother, is a reminder of her failure to nurture, protect, and hold me the way my grandmother wanted her to. The rebozo is meant to connect mother and child, but to my mother it became an object her child might possibly spill out of.

Bustamante's rebozo invites this experience of holding, of being carried, and of fearing that we might fail at both. Her rebozo asks that we hold history with her. She gives us a rebozo that functions like a language. That language, ultimately, lies in our hands. We choose how to carry it, where to carry it, and who to carry with it. Even if we stumble into the story clumsily, even if we do not know how to use the rebozo or how to tell the story, we leave the exhibition possibly more present to the history with which the artist speculates. Like many artists that work with the Mexican Revolution, Bustamante knows the story is scarred by trauma and violence. She knows that this makes it difficult to hold. Bustamante's exhibition creates a safe space through which we can explore what it means to be responsible to the story of the Mexican Revolution. We can feel how deeply we hold the story of the revolution, and how we share this history. We can explore how that history informs the way we experience the violence our bodies face in the present everyday.

Installation view, Nao Bustamante, "Rebozo" (2015). | Photo: Dale Griner.
Installation view, Nao Bustamante, "Rebozo"  (2015). | Photo: Dale Griner.   

As I imagine wearing the rebozo, I see a dark skinned man who hangs limp off of a telephone pole. I see guns pointed as clouds of smoke envelope troops. I see a nurse tending to wounded soldiers. I see graveyards growing with numerous erect crosses. I see bodies sprawled on the ground with bands of unused bullets lying across their torsos as if they too are carrying their own rebozos. These violent images flash on a large screen in the exhibition as the five-minute film "Soldadera" loops and cycles through archival images documenting the war's violence: the rebozo grows heavier.

While the rebozo collects and holds these images, I am pushed to recall the first violent histories of the Mexican Revolution I encountered in Victor Villaseñor's novel, "Wild Steps of Heaven" (1996). I first read Villaseñor's works in the eighth grade when my teacher handed me a copy of his earlier work, "Rain of Gold" (1991), as a graduation gift. Villaseñor was the only Mexican American, and Latino author, I had encountered at the time. Published after the 1960s Chicano movement, "Wild Steps of Heaven" recalls the history of a revolution that many Mexican Americans feel connected to. As a Mexican American student who experienced the eradication of bilingual education when proposition 227 passed in 1998 and the xenophobic border politics that continue to affect Latinos today, reading his novels became a significant moment of accessing important stories that are a part of my own cultural history: my eighth grade teacher thought I might need this history and it was one I had longed to carry, even if that history was fictionalized, imagined, and realized through a novel.

Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.
Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomas Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.

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Indebted to his father's childhood memory of the revolution, Villaseñor asserts that "the story of my father's familia was the story of all of Mexico," and that "the story of Mexico was the story of the last 500 years of European dominance all over our globe" (2). His writing carries his father's story and holds it up against that history. His father does not just bear witness to the history of the revolution; he bears witness to a history of colonization and its effects on the revolution. "In Wild Steps of Heaven," Villaseñor, too, carries that story across the border.

Through the eyes of his father, Juan Salvador, Villaseñor absorbs the traumatic impact of the war on his family; and he writes that violence with merciless detail. His novel is marked by multiple scenes describing rape, brutal executions, castration. Bodies are torn to pieces, cut, devoured.

Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.
Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomas Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.

What we glean from reading a novel like "Wild Steps of Heaven" is the difficult experience of telling a violent history. Of holding that story. We know that violence is a part of the revolution, and that it is an inextricably important part of the story, but that knowledge doesn't make the story any easier to tell or consume. It doesn't make it any easier to hold. Villaseñor writes, "some of the stories that my father told me about his people were still so violent and crazy that at times it was difficult for me to believe mi papá or to comprehend the world he came from" (1). For Villaseñor, comprehending the violence in its historical moment requires that he inhabit, know, and feel his father's world. That he interact with the bodies his father remembers. Narrating the story requires him to touch the bodies in the rebozo his own father holds.

Using a different framework, Bustamante's rebozo does not tell us what happened to any particular person or family. Her work is unlike Villaseñor's; she carries the story differently. She must write the untold. She looks for the body that is not there. She writes into history the bodies of women that were a part of a violent history but that are often unrecognized. She sees them but does not tell us what happened to them. We speculate on who they were and what happened to them. In other words, rather than look at what happened, she directs us to look at what could have happened and to take on the risk of re-imaging a history that is and is not there.

In this space of speculation, I move past the pleats, into and out of the fabric, and down the unruffled middle. There I encounter another body the rebozo carries and is carried by. There, in that space where the tight fabric holds all those stories and all those bodies, is an artist in dialogue with Bustamante's exhibition. She is part of the conversation. She knows the violence. She was there. The only woman writer to provide a semi-autobiographical work of her violent experience in the Mexican Revolution, Nellie Campobello writes her own body, and the body of her remembered girlhood, into the frontlines and into the battle. Her body is not recognized, and neither is her story. At the time of its 1931 publication, Campobello's "Cartucho" remained largely ignored both for its sympathetic view of Villistas and for her narrative being told through the eyes of a girl witnessing some of the most gruesome scenes of cruelty.

Cut into terse language, Campobello does not follow the conventions of storytelling. Her book, instead, reads like a catalogue of photographs. Each section is, as the title promises, a cartridge. Like her "Mama's eyes," which hold "the image of the man grasping his shirt as he fell to his knees and gave up his life" (46), each section records and contains violence. In each episode, young Campobello discovers "Stories saved for me, and I never forgot" while "Mama carried them in her heart" (46). The bodies of mother and daughter are a part of these stories and Campobello chooses to carry this memory of violence in her writing. She helps us discover those other stories that could be woven into Bustamante's rebozo; the hidden stories which bear those bodies that "were killed quickly, like unpleasant things not meant for public knowledge" (23). As she reaches into the past and gathers each corpse, Campobello guides us through the dark, where our hands spread out sensing and knowing she is there.

There, she sees wounded men walking the streets. There, she sees men's guts carried in buckets. There, she sees a hanged man. There, she is not always afraid. There, she looks curiously. She sees it, and if she doesn't see it, she hears about it.

Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.
Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomas Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.

That history is written in the blood she finds on the bodies of her executed childhood friends, Zafiro and Zequiel, which she "gather(s) up... like little red crystals that would never again turn into warm threads..." (19). Campobello writes and remembers the dead, showing us that the blood was there. The story is there. She cannot bring these bodies back to life but this does not stop Campobello from finding ways to preserve their story. The scholar Susan Foster describes this process of preserving the bodies of the past as a choreographic act, in which the bodies of the present and future "gesture toward one another... making the next moves out of their fantasies of the past and memories of the present" (11). Campobello, it is worth remembering, was a dancer and choreographer. Her writing takes on, like Bustamante's rebozo, the choreographic act of gesturing across time, where the artist chooses to look for other bodies willing to hold the story, and willing to dance, with us. Campobello carries that blood -- that history -- in the palm of her hand, and rocks it back and forth; and as she does, our hands slowly follow, taking the blood back, carefully, without completely letting go. She reaches out to those bodies she lived with and experienced with, while holding onto us. Coming closer together, we hold each other, feeling the weight of us all.

Arrullando y levantandonos, lulling us and waking us, Bustamante's rebozo cradles us. Set into motion, rocking back and forth, I throw the material across to you, where it might reach your shoulder, wondering if you will tie it across yours. I imagine it large enough to carry us both. I also imagine it large enough to wrap and tie around one of your shoulders and back across to one of mine, where we both form distance between us and remain connected. Here we make space to carry, allowing the rebozo to get heavier. If we look into the space -- a cove -- we have formed, I wonder what stories we could harbor back to that place where it once belonged, letting it spill over back to where it could go.


Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.
Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomas Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.

Read more about Nao Bustamante's "Soldadera" project:

Nao Bustamante's Soldaderas, Real and Imagined
Nao Bustamante's exhibition "Soldadera" is a "speculative reenactment" of women's participation in The Mexican Revolution. ­­

Searching for Soldaderas: The Women of the Mexican Revolution in Photographs
What can portraits tell us about soldaderas? Nao Bustamante draws from UC Riverside's archival holdings of photographs of the Mexican Revolution to investigate further.

Soldadera: The Unraveling of a Kevlar Dress
Made out of bulletproof Kevlar, Nao Bustamante's re-imagined Soldadera dresses protect the female body against violence.

My Love Affairs with Soldaderas
From calendars to corridos, the image of the Soldadera lives strong in popular culture. Nao Bustamante's new artwork re-imagines dresses of female soldiers.

Soldadera: The Tiny Things They Carried
Leandra Becerra Lumbreras was the last known survivor of the Mexican Revolution. Artist Nao Bustamante and a small crew made a trip to Zapopan, Mexico to meet her.

Soldadera: The Artist Meets Her Muse
At 127 years old, Leandra Becerra Lumbreras was the last survivor of the Mexican Revolution. Artist Nao Bustamante made a pilgrimage to her home in Jalisco, Mexico and found a muse.

Soldadera: Memory Machine
The speculative qualities of Nao Bustamante's exhibition "Soldadera" make a space for marginalized voices to construct alternative futures. Central to the show is installation "Chac-Mool" -- a 7-minute, looping, scented memory machine.

Soldadera: Nao Bustamante and Sergei Eisenstein's Unfinished Revolution
The complex relationship between the Mexican Revolution and the camera is taken up by Nao Bustamante in the cinematic installation anchoring her exhibition "Soldadera." With the short film, the artist reimagines and (re)enacts the the missing sequence from Sergei Eisenstein's never-finished film "¡Que Viva México!".



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